State Affairs and Border Affairs Hold Joint Hearing in Houston
HOUSTON - The Senate Committee on State Affairs and the Special Committee on Border Affairs jointly held a public hearing Wednesday, April 12, 2000 at the Red Lion Hotel at 2525 West Loop South in Houston. Lt. Governor Rick Perry has directed the committees to study together the intermodal transportation needs of the Texas-Mexico Border Region to facilitate economic development, international trade and safety. The committees are studying all modes of transportation including highways, farm and ranch roads, turnpikes, mass transit, aviation, railroads and water traffic. In addition, the committee is evaluating the planning and resources of the three Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) border districts, making recommendations to expedite the flow of commercial traffic related to NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) including alternative financing mechanisms.
Members of the State Affairs Committee include Senators Florence Shapiro of Plano, serving as chair, Eliot Shapleigh of El Paso, David Bernsen of Beaumont, J.E.'Buster' Brown of Lake Jackson, David Cain of Dallas, Tom Haywood of Wichita Falls, Drew Nixon of Carthage, and Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio. Brownsville Senator Eddie Lucio Jr. serves on the State Affairs Committee and as chair of the Special Committee on Border Affairs. Other Senators serving on the Border Affairs Committee include David Sibley of Waco, Teel Bivins of Amarillo, Robert Duncan of Lubbock, Carlos Truan of Corpus Christi and Judith Zaffirini of Laredo. Houston area Senators John Whitmire, Rodney Ellis and Mario Gallegos and Bryan Senator Steve Ogden joined the committees for the hearing.
The first to testify was Ned Holmes, Chair of the Houston Port Authority. Holmes testified that since the enactment of NAFTA, there has been a 100% increase in trade from 1994 to 1999 ($80 billion to $170 billion). He stated that we consume or use 49% of the container traffic arriving in Houston via the port or trucks. They ship much of the remaining to Monterrey, Mexico. Holmes testified that rail is not a good option because of the time involved, one day by truck versus two days by train. He recommends using ships and Mexican ports rather than trucks to alleviate truck traffic. A container ship can hold 1,000 - 1,500 containers versus one container per truck, resulting in 1,000 - 1,500 less trucks on Texas highways for every ship used.
Jim Dannenbaum testified representing the Greater Houston Partnership Turnpike and Toll Roads Committee. Dannenbaum testified in support of the new NAFTA corridor, I-69. With no direct trade route from the Great Lakes area, I-69 will relieve this situation. The benefits to the Houston area are traffic relief, and enabling the port and area airports to increase their intermodal transportation.
Tom Johnson, Executive Vice President of the Association of General Contractors of Texas, a trade organization whose members build approximately 92% of highways in Texas. Johnson testified against the use of GARVEE (Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicle) Bonds, and questions the need for Constitutional Amendment stating that the Constitution is clear. GARVEE Bonds are a federal financial tool allowing bonds to be issued against projected federal revenue from gas taxes. Johnson dislikes GARVEE Bonds because it is not a standard form of retirement of those bonds, stating the rate of inflation for building roads would be less than the interest paid.
Tamar Henkin of Hagler Bailly Consulting Firm delivered the final invited testimony to the joint hearing, a management and financial advisory consulting firm representing the Office of the State Comptroller. The Comptroller engaged the consulting firm to conduct a performance review of TxDOT . Henkin testified that traditional funding is not adequate to meet growing transportation needs, which created the need for innovative financing approaches. In addressing these new approaches, Henkin divided them into two categories: 1) those approaches aimed at leveraging available resources to expand or accelerate transportation investment, and 2) those approaches targeted at attracting 'net new' investment dollars.
They heard public testimony from Thomas Bost, Director of the Financial Group of First Union Securities in New York, a nationwide broker. Bost spoke in favor of the use of GARVEE Bonds citing the economic benefits.
The Special Committee on Border Affairs recessed, and the State Affairs Committee continued their portion of the hearing on commercial trucking. The committee is charged with studying the safety of the state's commercial trucking industry, including the safety of roads and bridges, Department of Public Safety (DPS) enforcement truck safety regulations, the effectiveness of current law as elating to oversize and overweight vehicles, and the adequacy of the fee structure designed to compensate county governments for road repair.
Bryan Senator Steve Ogden addressed the committee on issues relating to overweight trucks and the permitting system, and bridge safety. Senator Ogden wants the laws relating to the 2060 permit to be rewritten to be more equitable and with better enforcement. Ogden is concerned with safety issues regarding overweight trucks and the impact on an infrastructure, particularly bridges. Ogden called for an increase in fees and fines with a more equitable formula for getting the funds to the counties. County roads and bridges are built to a 58,000-59,000 pound capability, versus the interstate system that has an 80,000 pound capability.
Invited testimony began with Houston City Council Member Carroll Robinson regarding transportation safety. Robinson stated that trucks represented economic growth and jobs, but safety issues needed to be addressed. Houston has seen a substantial increase of commercial trucks since NAFTA. Robinson spoke about the increase of accidents relating to the increase of truck traffic, and the importance of educating car drivers about safety issues as it relates to the increase of truck traffic.
Officer C.J. Klausner of Houston Police Department (HPD) also testified on transportation safety and a new program in use with the goal of ensuring that they are driving safe trucks safely. HPD has had the program in effect for three months with officers riding with trucker and industry professional riding with police officers, allowing each of them to see what the other does professionally. HPD is conduct spot inspections, more than 3,000 to date. If the truck passes all the inspections, they give them a sticker that is visibly placed to show their compliance. Klausner testified that 75% of the trucks they inspect have enough violations that would take them out of service. The national average is 20-25%. They give a 4-1 ratio of warnings to citations, with the goal more to educate and gain compliance rather than issue citations to drivers. Other issues discussed by Klausner were the lack of commercial driver's licenses and log books; and bad tires, brakes, lights, and load securements.
Lt. Gary Albus of the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) Lubbock license and weight service office testified that they need help. On the advice of Texas Speaker of the House Pete Laney, Albus presented the committee with solutions. Some of Lt. Albus recommendations were to make tire size regulations consistent with federal requirements, and consistent penalties. Albus testified that only 123 of Texas' 254 counties have license and weight troopers.
Invited testimony was received from representatives of TxDOT. Commissioner Robert Nichols introduced Carlos Lopez, Director of Traffic Operations. Lopez briefed the committee on truck safety initiatives. TxDOT plans to create a road trip handbook for citizens with information such as 'how to share the road' and 'what signs mean'. TxDOT is considering a proposal for money to train more license and weight troopers, stating that in an eight-hour day the measurement system south of Devine can inspect 1,000 trucks. It weighs as they drive, if the weight is in question, a light flashes red indication to the driver to pull over for an in-depth inspection by scales and officers, thus reducing labor while increasing the number of trucks weighed.
Nichols then testified on a variety of related topics. Among the information Nichols discussed was a new web site feature that will let drivers know the locations of underweight bridges.
Harris County Judge Robert Eckels testified about working together with all the local agencies to address problems relating to NAFTA traffic, overweight trucks and safety issues.
Bill Webb, President of the Texas Motor Transportation Association, testified about issues that effect trucking companies when they are not only groups at fault. If they give a driver an unsafe route with low load bridges, an overloaded or a bad container to haul, or an unsafe trailer; they are unaware until they are at the bridge or on the road with unsafe equipment. The trucker receives the citation rather than the owner, the shipper or the contractor that dispatched the truck.
John Denholm of the Harris County Sheriff's Department testified. Denholm asked for the authority to take trucks in violation out of service. Gary Lindsey of the Dallas County Sheriff's Department testified. Lindsey testified that there were 454 deaths related to commercial vehicles in 1997 in Dallas County. He reiterated the problem of returning unsafe trucks to the road due to not having the authority to keep them out of service, and the problem of drivers receiving the citations and the companies not liable. Testimony was received from Lt. John Branton of the Dallas Police Department, and Deputy Chief Larry Zacharias of the City of Richardson, both supporting a unified effort for Dallas County.
Brazoria County Commissioner Jack Harris testified briefly and introduced Brazoria County Engineer Beverly Lands. Lands discussed the impact on public roads of the overweight trucks. Since most roads in Brazoria County are two-lane, there are few options other than to patch existing roads.
Public testimony was heard from Larry Cernosek representing the Texas Towing and Storage Association, and Jim Allison, General Counsel, County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas.
The State Affairs Committee will hold another public hearing tomorrow in the same location. The information gathered from all the public hearings during the interim will be presented as a report to be used in drafting legislation for the 77th Legislature, which convenes in January 2001.